William Smith

William Smith is a remarkable figure in the history of natural science because of the significance of his discoveries and the slow pace of the acceptance of his ideas. He is know known as the “Father of English Geology,” yet during his lifetime he suffered jail for debt, financial ruin, and the shameless plagiarism of his work, all in part the result of his “low” birth and lack of formal education which prevented him from being accepted by the gentlemanly science societies of the time. His major contribution to Romantic natural history was his idea of “faunal succession,” that is, the view that each era of natural history produced a different layer of material remains which could be studied to determine what life was like in earlier periods of geologic time. He made important discoveries about the fossil record, including the fact that groups of fossils found together were likely to be creatures who had lived together in precise periods during the earlier history of the planet. A passage from his notes suggests a precise moment when an interest in fossils as aesthetic or “romantic” curiosities was passing into the study of fossils as scientific records of the ancient past:

Fossils have been long studied as great curiosities, collected with great pains, treasured with great care
and at a great expense, and shown and admired with as much pleasure as a child’s hobby-horse is shown
and admired by himself and his playfellows, because it is pretty; and this has been done by thousands who
have never paid the least regard to that wonderful order and regularity with which nature has disposed of
these singular productions, and assigned to each class its peculiar stratum.    (January 1796)

His 1815 map (see 1820 version above) represented the first time that a geologist had produced an image of the surface and subsurface strata of Britain in detail for general public consumption. Lyell’s Geology, which offered the first argument that revealed the impermanence of the earth’s surface to a broad, general audience would not appear until 1830-33.

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